Amy Poehler and Maya Hawke voice Joy and Anxiety, respectively, in Disney and Pixar’s “Inside Out 2.”

Disney | Pixar

A big piece has been missing from the box office — family films.

A handful of kid-friendly hits — Universal’s “Super Mario Bros.” chief among them — have boosted ticket sales. But many family features either debuted on streaming platforms instead of the big screen after the pandemic, or were released so far away from each other on the calendar that any ticket sales momentum soon disappeared.

In the last few months, a steady stream of family-friendly movies have arrived in cinemas. Each release has built on the success of the last, reinvigorating the box office and giving movie theater operators hope for a stronger second half of the year. Disney and Pixar’s “Inside Out 2” gave an especially big jolt as it tallied $155 million during its opening weekend — a feat that helped restore the animation studio’s reputation within the industry following a rough patch.

“Momentum is a huge factor” in ticket sales, said Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas, a Midwestern theater chain.

So far in 2024, the domestic box office is down 23% from last year and trails 40% from 2019. It currently stands at $3.08 billion, according to Comscore.

More kid-friendly hits, like the coming “Despicable Me 4,” could be one of the keys to a box office rebound.

The “family-friendly” film genre is a wide one. The definition varies even among box-office analysts, as some say the film’s rating is the qualifier while others suggest it depends on the content of the film itself.

“Family movies come in all shapes and sizes,” said Shawn Robbins, founder and owner of Box Office Theory. “We as observers sometimes limit the descriptor to animated movies, or films of a certain rating, or those that are literally about a family of characters. They encapsulate a wide variety of stories, though.”

Robbins noted that family movies can often include superhero flicks, live-action adventure films and comedies.

“Think about how many families it took for the likes of Star Wars, the Marvel universe, ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ and ‘Barbie’ to earn as much as they did,” he said. “The bottom line is what’s friendly, accessible and relatable to as many demographics as possible.”

Comscore's Paul Dergarabedian breaks down his summer box office forecasts

So while some families that came out for “Inside Out 2” might consider the likes of Universal’s “Twisters” or Warner Bros.’ “Beetlejuice Beetlejuice” family-friendly fare due out later this year, others might choose to stick to Sony’s “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” Paramount’s “Transformers One” or Universal’s “The Wild Robot.” The much-anticipated “Moana 2” arrives at Thanksgiving and a third “Sonic” film hits in December.

“No matter how you define it, the family-film genre arguably more than any other was hit hardest by the pandemic with parents understandably reluctant to head out to a brick-and-mortar theater during the height of that unfortunate situation,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “Fast forward to 2024 and family films have been the undeniable bright spot for what has been a very challenging summer.”

Prior to the pandemic, more than two dozen family films arrived in theaters in 2019, with Disney’s “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “Toy Story 4” and “Frozen II” making up four of the 10 highest grossing films of the year.

In 2020, less than a dozen family films were released. Due to production shutdowns from the pandemic and dual Hollywood labor strikes, the number of releases remains significantly below 2019 levels.

“2023, for us, was actually a record year, but it could have been much better,” Classic Cinemas’ Johnson said, noting the absence of family-friendly fare. “You cannot ignore the family audience and its importance.”

Much-needed momentum

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